A Year in Reading: Alexander Theroux

December 10, 2010 | 1 book mentioned 6 4 min read


St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans: I re-read Romans once again this year. I remember having read it in various and strange places over a span of years – in a Trappist monastery; in graduate school over Christmas vacation at the University of Virginia (I was all alone on the grounds, too busy with writing papers to go home to Boston); in the outback of frozen Estonia where I was not only writing a book but, as a kind of project, undertaking a private study of St. Paul and his life – simply by way of recalling how in each of those particular locations and at such times that book meant to me as much in the matter of reason as it did as a resource of faith. What I want to clarify is, it is a book that is profoundly important for a seeker.

Written at Corinth in 57 A.D. during Paul’s third missionary journey, the letter is historically accurate –no voice from the early church was ever raised against the authorship of this epistle, whereas, say, there is not a jot of extra-Scriptural evidence that King Solomon ever existed, and of course David’s lyrical incantations are an aggregate of multiple poetic voices. St. Paul writes explicitly to explain to all that salvation is offered through the Gospel of Jesus Christ. His epistle is a public letter, non-literary yet artistic, an essay.

Paul has many voices. Argument. Heckling. Sweet logic. He loves paradox and understands its force. “Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed and so became the father of many nations.” He was a scholar who had studied under Gamaliel. He grasps human nature, knows psychology. He is a master of exhortation. He loves tree imagery, the language of potters, Socratic questioning. Any reader of, for one, Lincoln’s speeches and letters knows he owed a debt to Paul. The man was taut as a tangent, a short-ruddy-haired Pharisee from Tarsus in Cilicia (now Turkey), a tent-maker, also a Roman citizen with privileged legal status that once saved him from a whipping in Jerusalem. He suffered threats and shipwrecks and spent six years in prison, all told.

I select this sixth book of the New Testament as my chosen book for 2010 for its simple and accommodating solid truth (“To all in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints (1:7)), offered by an uncompromising, unyielding, desperately didactic scholar, a humble and resolute man who not only never saw himself as indispensable to the message he was bringing, nor was corruptible by wealth or rank, but who came to Christ and His offer of eternal salvation not through traditional study but from a dramatic conversion on the road to Damascus. It is his brave intransigence that surely speaks to our present dépaysement, a sense of isolation where in the most serious ways we feel we are missing our home.

We live in a secular age, a period of dim understanding when it is a virtual blasphemy to say “Merry Christmas” or put up a Nativity crèche. This is the kind of desperate self-consciousness and hideous circumspection that indicates how morally weak we are, how farcically overconsidered, how foppishly irrational. We live in a period when religion itself seems not even spiritual, when simonists on television are trying to make money selling God and halfwits are burning Korans and ordained priests are pedophiles.  We live in a time of supreme scruple. Pusillanimous. Tentative. Hesitant. Uncertain. Weak. Fearful. Cringing. People do not read to consequence anymore. We have lost our vitality, and live fractiously, to my mind, on the kind of “darkling plain” that Matthew Arnold writes of in “Dover Beach” – with “little certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain” – which ends

The Sea of Faith

Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore

Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl’d.

But now I only hear

Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,

Retreating, to the breath

Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear

And naked shingles of the world.

St. Paul who unambiguously offers us life of Christ and salvation is not the fidgety neurotic button-twisting sort of herbert we now see everywhere, not only in the toadying, listless, graft-ridden, indecisive nest-featherers and eunuchs who constitute most if not all of the U.S. Congress but even in our presidents – not only the smirking  bland, duncical, street-boy-faced George W. Bush but also the mistake-prone neophyte Barack Obama who not only picked a poor Cabinet but has continued to fight a pointless and fatal war now 10 years long, of whom Matt Taibbi wrote, “You can’t run against him on the issues because you can’t find him on the ideological spectrum.” No, the mystique had vanished, the politique is everywhere.

It is only when we get serious that we can grow. “When I was a child,” St. Paul wrote, “I used to talk as a child, think as a child, reason as a child; when I became a man, I put aside childish things.” I offer this piece not as a means of conversion, but as a plea for the virility of reason. As Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote in the Philosophical Investigations, “We find certain things about seeing puzzling, because we do not find the whole business of seeing puzzling enough.” I recall looking at my students at Harvard, several of whom when I was trying to teach “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” I could not help but notice sitting at the back of the classroom, especially on a Spring day, not only slouching and indifferent but looking far too smug, even superior, mocking the balding anti-hero’s impotent earnestness, and saying to them, “At least Prufrock was asking questions of the world.”

More from a Year in Reading 2010

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

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most recent novel is Laura Warholic. Two new non-fiction books are due in 2011: The Strange Case of Edward Gorey and Estonia: A Ramble Through the Periphery, both from Fantagraphics Books.


  1. Thanks for the excellent essay. I’m not sure if you would appreciate this, but it prompted me to look up Jimmy Carter’s “malaise” speech and read it again.

  2. Wonderful. I too re-read Romans this year as well as Karl Barth’s masterful commentary on it. Looking forward to Estonia!

  3. My father was really into St Paul. Me, not so much. He seemed too dogmatic to me and I didn’t think he understood women too well. “It is better to marry than to burn” struck me as a fairly poor reason to marry. But some years ago a used bookstore in Burbank, CA was closing and on the final day they were open you could take away as many books as you could carry at no cost. Foolishly I did not bring a bag. But I picked up The Tentmaker, by Julius Berstl, translated from German and published in the United States in 1951 by Rinhart & Co. It is a fictional account of Paul’s early life. Paul is depicted as a high-strung, spiritual seeker born into a materialistic family, Greek I believe. Paul is intense, tormented and when he finally became a Christian, he was still intense, tormented and (in my opinion) dogmatic. But the book provoked in me many thoughts about seeking spiritual truth and spiritual freedom. Your essay made me remember the uncomfortable yet inspiring experience of reading The Tentmaker.

  4. Dear Alex, I hope you see this note. Please write me at above email. Dearest Martin has dementia, like Alzheimers, and is in care facility here in Charlottesville. He always admired and loved you so I know he’d like you to know. I am, of course, broken hearted, but visit him every day. Did you go to Estonia partly for poor Peter P.? Let me know if you get this. We’re still in phone book. xx,ruthe

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